Pastors preaching politics push limits
Two Southern California ministers were among dozens across the country Sunday taking politics to the pulpit in hopes of influencing the Nov. 4 presidential election.
Unlike some pastors who endorsed Republican John McCain during “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” the two ministers stopped short of explicitly recommending that worshipers vote for either McCain or Democrat Barack Obama. But they were not shy about raising politics in church.
Pastor Stephen B. Orman urged those attending his Warner Avenue Baptist Church service in Huntington Beach, Calif., to use the Bible as a voters’ guide and evaluate candidates and issues on the basis of scripture.
Rev. Wiley S. Drake suggested that those at his First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., vote for him – and for his presidential running mate on the American Independent Party ticket, Alan Keyes.
Drake asked his congregation to support the challenge to the federal ban on political campaigning by nonprofit groups.
“I am angry because the government and the IRS and some Christians have taken away the rights of pastors,” Drake said to about 45 people at his service. “I have a right to endorse anybody I doggone well please. And if they don’t like that, too bad.”
A conservative legal group based in Arizona, Alliance Defense Fund, said it planned to support ministers testing the IRS rules. Congress made it illegal in 1954 for tax-exempt organizations to publicly support or oppose political candidates.
Other clerics and critics condemned Sunday’s actions by the 33 pastors in 22 states. They warned that pulpit politicking would undercut the independence that churches have had to speak out about moral and ethical issues.
“Pastors have a responsibility to the whole of their flock to provide spiritual support and guidance” but not partisan political advice, said the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
But Erik Stanley, Alliance Defense Fund senior legal counsel, disagreed.
His group is prepared to defend the First Amendment rights of churches investigated for politicking by the IRS. “If the First Amendment doesn’t protect controversial speech,” he said, “it protects no speech at all.”
It was unclear how many of the ministers taking part in Sunday’s action were crossing the IRS line.
In West Bend, Wis., the Associated Press reported that Pastor Luke Emrich told 100 worshipers at his evangelical New Life Church that “l would cast a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin,” adding, “it’s your choice to make; it’s not my choice.”
Pastor Jody Hice, of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Bethlehem, Ga., compared Obama and McCain on abortion and gay marriage, concluding McCain “holds more to a biblical world view.”
At the independent Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Okla., Pastor Paul Blair likewise told his congregation of his support for McCain.
In Buena Park, members of Drake’s congregation applauded during his sermon.
He urged members to think about their faith when voting and spent much of his 40-minute sermon giving a partisan speech about the presidential candidates and their issues. “According to my Bible, and in my opinion, there is no way in the world a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama,” Drake said. “Mr. Obama is not standing up for anything that is tradition in America.”
He urged prayers for the American Independent Party. “We are going to do more damage to the Democrats and Republicans than we have ever done,” he said.
William Ruffin, who has attended the church for 10 years and is a Bible studies teacher there, said he believed that denying freedom of speech in the pulpit “means that this country is living as hypocrites.”
In Huntington Beach, Orman spoke of personal responsibility, citing home schooling as an example. He said judges that recently ruled against restrictions on home instruction deserve support as churchgoers check the records of judges and vote out those they feel “have been doing wrong.”
He said he favors the separation of church and state, “but I don’t believe the separation of God and government.”
Orman ended his sermon by urging those in the congregation to vote.